The Power of Storytelling in Business
I first became aware of the power of business stories while reading the most exceptional business book I’ve ever read – The Art of Possibility, by Zander and Zander.
Ben Zander was the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and Roz Zander is an Industrial Psychologist – an intriguing combination to write a business book! Their leadership insights come to life through a series of inspirational and memorable stories of leadership courage, growth and impact. Apart from the fantastic content, what set this book apart for me was that the key points were, and still are, concrete, memorable, relatable and easily teachable – all because they were wrapped up in business stories.
This experience motivated me to research and study what makes a great business story, and apply these learnings in countless situations over the last decade. I’m convinced that being able to share a good business story is an essential skill required by all leaders; just as important, if not more so, than more traditional leadership skills. Here’s why I think this.
1. Good business stories are memorable
I suspect if I asked you to recall the key points from the last PowerPoint presentation you listened to, you would struggle to remember them. I suspect though if I asked you to recall your first driving lesson or your first day at work you would have no trouble remembering the key things that happened, even though they may have occurred a long time ago. Why? – because these are your stories. The same applies to good business stories. Good business stories are memorable and even if the details aren’t crystal clear, you will almost certainly remember the main business points, even years later.
2. Good business stories have impact and help the listeners relate better to the storyteller
For several years I was General Manager of the Distribution team at Ballance Agri-Nutrients and as was tradition, I would present a state of the nation speech at the annual Distribution conference. It was usually death by PowerPoint but one year I tried a different approach – I shared a personal business story.
I explained how I had been struggling with the new strategies being introduced by our new CEO, not because the strategies were bad, they were great. I was struggling because I hadn’t been part of developing the new strategies in the same way I had been in the past under a different CEO. I shared that after some reflection I became really annoyed with myself for being change resistant for one reason only – I wasn’t involved. What made me feel even worse was that I realised this was how I tended to operate with the Distribution team – develop the strategy myself and expect others to love it.
I apologised for my approach and promised to do a better job in the future of getting them involved much earlier in change that would affect them. I watched the audience as I shared my story and I became increasingly concerned about the shocked expressions I was seeing. I thought I’d blown it. In fact, the opposite was true. Almost straight away people came up to me and basically said, “At last we’ve seen the real you – you are human after all”. From that point on my team became comfortable sharing their concerns with me and my relationships become more genuine and real. I had learned first-hand the power of leadership vulnerability and the power of sharing a very personal story.
3. Good business stories are far more than just the facts
Sharing a business story allows the storyteller to convey emotion, explain context and create meaning. It is much more than just the facts. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a motivational speech by Jamie Fitzgerald during which he shared his story of winning the 2003 Trans-Atlantic rowing race with Kevin Biggar. He used an emotion-packed presentation style and the context of the race to reveal lessons learned that apply just as much in a business setting. Two that still stick in my mind were to be crystal clear on your purpose and goals and never waver from them and assume nothing – check, check and check again.
4. Anyone can learn to tell a good business story
Not everyone is good with numbers. Not everyone can manage complex projects, but I know from experience that with some guidance and practice, anyone can learn to tell good business stories. The Ballance leadership group developed a new purpose statement and instead of communicating it internally using traditional approaches, we decided to share our new purpose using storytelling.
We trained our managers and team leaders how to tell effective business stories and then got each of them to create their own story explaining our new purpose. Were the stories the same? – no. Did every story cover off every key point? - no. But it didn’t matter, because all of the stories were impactful, memorable and told authentically by people who each team could relate to – their boss. I guarantee that every Ballance team member at the time knew our new purpose, had a sense of why it was created and understood their part to play in making it a reality. I’m convinced this would never have happened if it wasn’t shared using the business story approach.
So when should you share a business story? Sharing business stories can be impactful when you want to:
- Explain reasons for making a change
This can cover anything from a process change to a new company purpose or strategy.
- Connect and engage with a group
Sharing stories that demonstrate how you tick is a helpful way to relate to a new group or team.
- Help people understand the culture of your organisation
Sharing stories of ‘how things are done around here’ can help new people to understand your culture far more effectively than a detailed explanation in an induction pack.
- Inspire action
You are far more likely to inspire the action you are looking for when your call for action is shared through a business story.
- Share lesson learned
Using a story to explain how a lesson was learned and the lesson itself is far more impactful than just sharing the lesson.
- Combat competing or anti-stories
Anti-stories or negative viewpoints can be damaging. The best way to combat them is to construct and tell a better, more compelling business story.
Authored by Greg Delaney, one of our ODI specialists.
To learn more about how to create and share memorable and impactful business stories, contact Kyran or Nicky on firstname.lastname@example.org or 03 943 2373.